A Negative Bias In Our Perception

Steven Jay Gould, a famous zoologist, says the general public tends to believe humans are a violent species. But we are remarkably friendly and kind to each other. He says that when an ethologist (a person who studies wild animals living in their natural environment) sees individual animals only have one or two aggressive encounters for tens of hours, they would rate it as a peaceful species. "But think," he says, "of how many millions of hours we can log for most people on most days without noting anything more threatening than a raised third finger once a week or so."

The problem is, of course, that an act of aggression or violence is supremely noticeable, and normal courteous interactions are not nearly as noticeable. When the lady at the checkout counter is polite, what is there to notice? Does it make your day? Do you remember it later? Do you tell anyone about it?

But what would happen if she insulted you or slapped you? Would you remember it later? You bet you would! Tell anyone about it? Are you kidding?!

There is a natural bias in our perception and memory of reality. It is heavily biased toward the negative. Not for all experiences — obviously, we do remember good events. But for a certain class of experiences, the bias is negative (experiences where the expected event isn't very noticeable and the negative event is very noticeable). This is one very important way pessimism worms its way into your mind.

For example, Gilovich says that at big schools, professors "learn early on that unless they are careful, it is easy to be exposed mainly to the alibis and complaints of the most difficult students and rarely see the more successful and more pleasant students who make teaching so gratifying."

And of course that would be the case. The good students listen in class so they have fewer dumb questions, and fewer problems with the work, and they do their homework so they don't show up in the professor's office asking for an extension on a due-date or whatever. They are not nearly as noticeable as the slacker students. Just by the nature of reality and perception, the professor's experience will be biased toward a negative opinion about students in general unless she compensates for it by deliberately trying to notice the good students.

This glitch in reality is a major source of the development of cynical beliefs. Think about how many things function well in government, for example. Thousands upon thousands of things go right every day. But when a senator does something wrong, we hear about it for days or weeks — in the news, in the late night comedian's jokes, in conversations with your co-workers. It is noticeable. It is easily remembered.

When senators do their normal work, what is there to notice? What is reported? Would you ever hear on the news, "A senator today did his job well?" No. It's not newsworthy. You're not going to go around telling all your friends about it. And why not? Because most senators on most days do what they are supposed to be doing and that just isn't news because it's so normal. And yet the end result of the media magnifying reality's negative bias is that many people have formed a cynical view of the world and of politics and big business and you name it — a view that isn't really justified by the facts, but a view that seems completely justified by the facts because the only facts about those things that makes it to the normal person are negative events, which are newsworthy because they are unusual.

Adam Khan is the author of Principles For Personal Growth, Slotralogy, Antivirus For Your Mind, and co-author with Klassy Evans of How to Change the Way You Look at Things (in Plain English). Follow his podcast, The Adam Bomb.

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